Klipsun Magazine


Story and photos by Michael Homnick

How to brew beer in your kitchen

Standing over a vat of simmering malts and grains, Western senior Alex Gislason is in his element. Peering out from under his beanie through the steam, he carefully tends to the brew-in-progress, making sure everything is going according to plan.

"This is looking great," he says over a Nirvana album playing in the background. "We are right on schedule."

Not that it would matter much if the batch of chocolate stout was running a little behind -clearly there is not much else Gislason would rather be doing than brewing a batch of beer.

Cracking open a bottle of his most recent brew, a full-bodied ale, he explains how home brewers are often motivated to experiment and try new things with their beers. This creates flavors the beer market does not provide. For example, Gislason is adding real chocolate to his stout, something he says would be hard to find in a store.

"You don't have to do it like Boundary Bay to make a good beer," he says. "Love comes out of learning."

Sitting behind the bar of a brewery like Boundary Bay sipping a beer, it is easy to imagine a chemistry lab full of people in lab coats plugging away at equations and mixing precise amounts of ingredients to create the final product served on tap.

While many brewing companies would likely prefer to keep this glorified image intact, the truth is the beer-making process is performed by people all around, many of whom have not graduated with a degree in chemistry.

In fact, according to the American Homebrewers Association, more than 750,000 people brew their own beer in the U.S.

"It isn't a really complicated process," says Robert Arzoo, who owns the North Corner Brewing Supply store in Bellingham. "It's more like cooking-you gotta have the right pots and pans, but it is relatively simple."

North Corner serves as a home base for brewers in Bellingham, providing the "pots and pansā€ necessary to make beer, such as large jugs or buckets used for fermentation, as well as some things Arzoo says are ultra-specific to brewing like airlocks and corkers.

Home brewing in the U.S. has been growing in popularity ever since it was legalized in 1978, partly due to the wide demographic of people it attracts. Arzoo says the type of people coming into his store varies greatly, a testament to the broad appeal of home brewing.

"It ranges from do-it-yourselfers to engineers," he says.

Many beer-makers consider Bellingham to be the perfect place to find other people to share their beer-making experiences.

Alex Cleanthous, a graduate of Western's environmental studies program, is a member of the Bellingham Homebrewers Club and says he is happy to be a part of the brewing scene in Bellingham.

"Bellingham has a do-it-yourself culture," he says. "People learn they can do it and want to try. They want to help other people make good beer."

The Bellingham Homebrewers Club has more than 140 members, a number Cleanthous says shows the enthusiasm in Bellingham for home brewing. He says being a member of the club has been a great way to meet other people who brew their own beer, as well as get advice from people who have been brewing longer than him.

The club also gives members a chance to observe brewing on other levels than home brewing. In a recent tour of Boundary Bay Brewing Company's brewery, the members acted like kids in a candy store as assistant brewer Anthony Stone explained the brewery's process, which Cleanthous says is essentially home brewing on a larger scale.

"The biggest difference is consistency," he says. "Basically they have to reproduce the same beer with the same taste again and again."

He says this can be difficult for home brewers since they do not have the expensive equipment and filters used by breweries.

This lack of equipment is trivial to home brewers like Cleanthous, and the majority of the enjoyment seems to come from the do-it-yourself feel of the process and the new experiences brought on by each batch of beer.

"It's really a hobby you can completely invest yourself in," Cleanthous says.

While there are many reasons people become home brewers, it seems there is one universal trait: a love for beer.

For Western student Robbie Lowry, 25, beer was not an important part of life, or even a hobby, until he turned 21. Lowry did not drink until reaching the legal drinking age in the U.S., but he says once he tried it, beer immediately interested him. However, he was then faced with the seemingly limitless number of styles and brands to try.

He devised a flawless system to counter this: try beers with the coolest labels. After a while, Lowry says he began to notice numerous flavors in beer, but did not know enough about the brewing process to pinpoint what the flavors belonged to.

He decided the best way to fix this was to learn the process himself. By seeking out people with knowledge of beer, Lowry was able to educate himself on the basics of beer-making and attempt his first batch of brew. That was a year and a half ago-now Lowry is brewing batches of his own beer almost monthly.

He says a batch always starts with a trip to the brewing supply store to pick up necessary ingredients: water, malt extract, specialty grains, hops and yeast. These will vary slightly depending on the type of beer, but mostly the same ingredients are used for all types of beer.

The malt extract is essentially a thick syrup which acts as the base of the beer. This brewing style, known as extract brewing, takes its name from this malt syrup and is basically a beginner's stage of brewing due to its simplicity, Lowry says. However, more serious brewers can attempt a style known as all-grain brewing, which Lowry says is more complicated but gives the brewer more control over the final product.

After acquiring the ingredients, the process begins by soaking the grains in water about 160 degrees Fahrenheit. This process, called steeping mashing, releases the grain's sugars and flavors. Next, the grains are removed and replaced by the malt extract and hops, which are boiled for about an hour. The sugary substance that results is called wort, and will provide all necessary sugars for the yeast to produce alcohol. After quickly cooling the wort and transferring it to a fermenting jug or bucket, yeast is added, usually in liquid form.

And now the waiting begins. The wort and yeast mixture must be placed in a dark place with a temperature around 60 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Because light has the ability to alter the flavor of a fermenting beer, a brew that is "light-struckā" could end up with foreign flavors. To combat this, Lowry simply puts a dark shirt over his fermentation jug, a do-it-yourself solution typical to home brewing.

Fermentation occurs when yeast eats the sugars in the wort, creating what many would consider the most important element of beer as a byproduct-alcohol. Carbon dioxide is also released in the form of bubbles, so the jug must be sealed with a device called an airlock. The airlock allows carbon dioxide to be released without letting any air in, he says.

After about two weeks of fermenting, the contents are transferred into another fermenting jug, filtering out some of the sediment and sludge that accumulates at the bottom of the liquid. And, after another week, the batch has officially been brewed, and it is time to bottle.

To accumulate carbonation after being bottled, the beer must sit another two weeks in bottles before being enjoyed. The entire process takes approximately one month, something Lowry says has encouraged him to purchase multiple fermentation jugs to brew multiple batches at the same time.

Lowry says he has gained invaluable experience from brewing over the past year and a half, mostly from trial and error. For example, if too much sugar is added after bottling to promote carbonation, extreme amounts of pressure can be created-enough for the tops to be explosive.

"The bottles can be like little mini-hand grenades," he says. "You don't want that to happen."

Perhaps the most important lesson Lowry has learned in his brewing experiences is the joy that can come out of brewing one's own beer.

"Pretty soon I just realized I want to be doing this as much as possible," he says.

For Lowry, brewing is a process enjoyed with friends both during and after the beer-making process. He says he credits a number of these friends and coworkers with giving him the help and advice needed to brew successful beer. This way, brewing becomes less of a hobby and more of a lifestyle to be experienced with fellow home brewers.

"There is definitely a culture surrounding beer-making," says Gislason, as he watches his chocolate stout wort filter down into a container on his kitchen floor. "This is similar to any other art form."

He uses the term "art" literally. With so much complexity going into each batch of beer, he says it would be wrong to call home brewing anything other than art. By making small changes to elements within a kettle, such as varying temperature by a few degrees, Gislason says brewers, like artists, can achieve limitless, unique and interesting results.

In the end, home brewing can simply be considered a cooking project: There are ingredients with a recipe, which one follows until the end product is achieved. But for many like Gislason, Cleanthous and Lowry, brewing is much more than following a recipe-it is a way of life.

© 2010 Klipsun Magazine